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Cause of massive Cottageville fire still under investigation

State officials are still investigating the cause of an early-morning fire last week that completely destroyed the Town of Cottageville’s former elementary school and gymnasium.

“It was a historic building and many folks from the Cottageville area attended school there. It was a loss for that community, but it is fortunate that no one was hurt,” said Barry McRoy, director/chief of Colleton County Fire-Rescue (CCFR). The CCFR was the primary responding agency to the fire.

According to McRoy, fire crews battled the blaze for nearly nine hours.

Cottageville Police Chief Jeffery Cook also praised the CCFR, saying the county agency ran more than a dozen trucks in constant shifts, with those trucks delivering water from Walterboro to Cottageville to fight the fire. “Cottageville does not have any water hydrants or town water,” said Cook.

“We are devasted at this loss. But, we cannot credit Fire-Rescue enough for fighting to protect everyone and for trying to save our historic school. They are the only reason our police department and town offices are still standing,” he said. The town’s police department, court room and administrative offices are intact, and were not damaged from the nearby blaze.

Because there are no water lines in Cottageville, firefighting crews ran water from two nearby ponds and from the Lowcountry Airport Industrial Park near Walterboro. Several “drop tanks” were also set up in front of the gymnasium. Several of the town’s roads were blocked off so that water lines could be run to shuttle water from three locations.

In all, an estimated 17 water shutters (tenders) were used to fight the fire.

In the end, however, the building was a total loss.

The complex was set to be renovated into a Cottageville Municiapl Complex, as part of a vision shared by town leaders. Until it burned, the empty school was also being used by the town’s council and community members as a gathering place for musicians, as a town-sponsored haunted house at Halloween and as a site for the town’s holiday decorations and lawn maintenance equipment.

There are still plans to renovate the grounds surrounding the park and to turn that area into a community town park. “There were actually crews there working on building the bathroom for our new park when the fire was spotted,” said Cottageville Mayor Tim Grimsley. “This is a loss for us. But, we are still going to focus on building the park for the town’s residents.”

The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) responded to the fire, as part of routine protocol. SLED is investigating the cause of the fire. As of press deadline, that report was not ready for release.

SLED arson investigators and an arson dog were on the scene for nearly six hours.

The actual 911-emergency call reporting the blaze was first called in at 6:38 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27th. The former elementary school and complex consisted of four brick buildings: two older brick veneer bricks, including the former school’s gymnasium, that were built in the 1930s and two smaller buildings that were used as a public library and municipal offices for the town.

“A construction crew who were arriving to work … noticed smoke coming from the gym,” said McRoy. “Upon inspection, they found flames coming from the rear windows and called 911.”
McRoy says that Engine 9, which is stationed about one mile away from the scene, arrived “within minutes,” with those crews finding the former school already “heavily involved” with flames and smoke. That crew requested a second alarm, an act that spawned multiple engines to the scene.

“The fire was already impinging on the large classroom building, which only had a few feet of separation by a covered breezeway,” said McRoy.

A third alarm was then made by crews who were on the scene. “Firefighters deployed lines into the classroom building, but the ceilings on the north end of the building were already beginning to fail,” he said. As the ceiling began to fall, firefighters were evacuated from the structure.

According to McRoy, the people of Cottageville also worked to help in everyone’s efforts to stop the fire. “Law enforcement did a great job, keeping the roads cleared for the Tenders to bring water to the scene,” he said. “The Town and citizens bringing food and drinks to the firefighters was incredibly thoughtful and much appreciated. The Mayor and Police Chief were among some of the many people who were there all day.”

By the day’s end, 77 firefighters from Colleton County responded to the incident. One fireman was treated at the scene for heat exhausted.

“The fire did spread to a wooded area behind the school and a Forestry Tractor responded to cut a fire line around the back of the building,” said McRoy. “The woods fire was quickly contained.”


Heather Walters (1452 Posts)